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After mass shootings, Republicans wrestle with politics of race

As the nation grapples with the aftermath of two horrific mass shootings – one allegedly committed by an avowed white supremacist – the Republican Party has been engaging in a kind of soul-searching of its own.  

Many leading Republican politicians, including several from states with large Latino populations, have made a point of calling out “white supremacy” by name and urging others in their party to take an unequivocal stance.

Other top Republicans haven’t joined the chorus, however, instead blaming mental illness and video games for the actions of mass shooters. And while some in the party see an urgent need to take a strong moral stand, others see a political trap – since many Democrats are arguing that it is hypocritical for any Republican to denounce white supremacy unless he or she also denounces President Donald Trump.

Still, the shift in thought is significant, observers say. Fighting white supremacy will require leaders from both sides of the aisle to consistently and specifically condemn it wherever it emerges, says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University professor who studies far-right youth extremism. 

“I do think this is a genuine shift happening,” Ms. Miller-Idriss says. “We’re seeing a much stronger condemnation now than we have in the past.”

Washington

As the nation grapples with the aftermath of two horrific mass shootings – one allegedly committed by an avowed white supremacist – the Republican Party has been engaging in a kind of soul-searching of its own.  

Many leading Republican politicians, including several from states with large Latino populations, have made a point of calling out “white supremacy” by name and urging others in their party to take an unequivocal stance.

On Sunday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, called the shooting “a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.” Florida Sen. Rick Scott called white nationalism “a cancer in our country.” Freshman Rep. Dan Crenshaw, also from Texas, tweeted that race-based violence “is one of the most disgusting forms of evil that exists.”

President Donald Trump, who has faced considerable criticism for years of rhetoric that detractors see as race-baiting, declared Monday in a televised address, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.”

Other top Republicans haven’t joined the chorus, however, instead blaming mental illness and video games for the actions of mass shooters. And while some in the party see an urgent need to take a strong moral stand, others see a political trap – since many Democrats are arguing that it is hypocritical, if not flat-out impossible, for any Republican to denounce white supremacy unless he or she also denounces Mr. Trump.

Still, the shift in thought is significant, observers say. Fighting white supremacy will require leaders from both sides of the aisle to consistently and specifically condemn it wherever it emerges, says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an American University professor who studies far-right youth extremism. 

“I do think this is a genuine shift happening,” Ms. Miller-Idriss says. “We’re seeing a much stronger condemnation now than we have in the past.”

Some Republican strategists, aware of the GOP’s image problem on matters of race, want to see a bolder reckoning on rhetoric. 

“For the party’s future, it’s important we be clear about what we stand for and what we’re not willing to tolerate,” says Texas-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. When it comes to white nationalism, Republican leaders need to “send a message that everyone in the country opposes those views,” he says, “and to do that explicitly.”

In Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state in the 2020 presidential race, the GOP is facing a challenge attracting a diversity of new members. In the view of one party leader, state GOP committee member Joseph DiSarro, “we may have to do some reevaluation of the rather careless rhetoric that’s going on.”  

But any suggestion that the burden lies solely at Mr. Trump’s feet is wrong, adds Mr. DiSarro, a political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania.  

Loren Elliott/Reuters

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas addresses members of the media during a Border Safety Initiative event in Mission, Texas, July 1, 2019. On Sunday, Senator Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, called Saturday’s shooting in El Paso, Texas, a “heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.”

Racism and white supremacy “existed long before Trump became president,” he says. “This notion that somehow the president is the cause of all evil is absurd.” 

Yet critics see a more insidious effect from Mr. Trump’s words, echoes of which appeared in an online manifesto posted moments before a gunman in El Paso, Texas, killed 22 people and injured dozens more at a Walmart last Saturday. The manifesto spoke of “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

Studies show that inflammatory language, especially online, can encourage violent behavior. To the president’s detractors, his pattern of stoking racial animosity makes any statement condemning white supremacy now ring hollow. The same goes for statements by GOP leaders who nevertheless continue to support Mr. Trump.   

“He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country,” said former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate who is from El Paso.  

That’s not to say Republicans don’t mean it when they denounce white supremacy. Indeed, some are now making powerful arguments about why, and how, conservatives need to wage war against white nationalist ideology.

“It’s time to be as wide awake about the dangers of online racist radicalization as we are about online jihadist inspiration,” conservative writer David French exhorted in the National Review. 

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, published an op-ed in The Atlantic calling on his fellow conservatives to confront the issue head-on. “Terrorism by white supremacists is indeed a real and present danger,” he writes. “The only question is: What are we going to do about it?” 

The problem, critics say, is that the party, led by Mr. Trump, has a lot to make up for – more than can be fixed by a single speech or tweeted condemnations after a tragedy. Throughout his term, they argue, the president has used fear and racial animus to motivate his base of voters. Years before Mr. Trump became president, he led the charge in questioning then-President Barack Obama’s American citizenship. On the day he announced his 2016 presidential campaign, he called Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists.  

In 2017, after white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mr. Trump drew flak for saying there was “blame on both sides.” In May, he smirked at a Florida rally when a supporter shouted that the way to deal with unauthorized immigrants was to shoot them, and last month he created a firestorm after tweeting that four liberal Democratic congresswomen of color – all critics of his – needed to “go back” to where they came from. 

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, Mr. Trump had represented the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the southern border as an “invasion.” The gunman who opened fire at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October was found to have accused a Jewish organization that aided Central American migrants of bringing in “invaders that kill our people.” 

“What President Trump has done, and candidate Trump did, is look for the cultural fissures, the places where there was room to tear us apart,” says Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark, a conservative news site founded by Republican critics of Mr. Trump. “He inserts a jackhammer into that division and he cranks it open further all the time.”

Still, many in the party reject the premise that Mr. Trump is a racist or that he’s responsible for the rise of white nationalism in the country. Pushing to reform the nation’s asylum laws or strengthen its borders doesn’t make a person a white supremacist, Mr. Mackowiak points out. And while the president should have to answer for some of his language – “I criticized him sharply after Charlottesville,” Mr. Mackowiak says – Democrats can be just as aggressive in riling up their base.

Indeed, many of the 2020 Democratic candidates have sharply ramped up their own rhetoric in recent days, with several explicitly tying Mr. Trump to the El Paso shooting. To conservatives, this shows that liberals are willing to use accusations of white supremacy as a political weapon.  

“Democrats always tend to overreach,” Ms. Longwell says. “It then gives people grounds to dismiss their complaint because they are taking it to an extreme that is too far.”

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